The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday announced that those involved in a budding bull trout reintroduction program in northwest Oregon’s Clackamas River are among the recipients of 2011 Recovery Champion awards, which honors agency employees and partners for outstanding efforts to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife and plants.
Five Oregon public employees have been honored for taking bull trout restoration in the Clackamas River from concept to reality over a period of several years.
The Clackamas River Basin Bull Trout Team includes Chris Allen and Dan Shively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Jeff Boechler with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Jason Dunham with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Brad Goehring with Mt. Hood National Forest.
The team of biologists undertook a multi-year, scientifically rigorous, multi-agency funded and implemented study of the feasibility of reintroducing bull trout into the Clackamas. The biologists demonstrated that reintroducing bull trout to this habitat was possible, and then worked with a long list of other partners, stakeholders, interested parties, private companies, tribes and others to bring about the reintroduction.
Not only did the team lay the groundwork for the successful initial reintroduction of more than 100 bull trout last year, some of the fish are already spawning in their new home waters.
The bull trout reintroduction effort begun last summer when biologists put the coldwater, wide-ranging fish back into the Clackamas after a nearly 50-year absence.
“We were very pleasantly surprised that we documented spawning last year,” Allen said. In all 58 juvenile fish aged from about 1 to 3 years old were outplanted. They ranged from 70-250 millimeters (about 2.8 to nearly 10 inches long). Also released were 30 subadults (250-450 millimeters long and 28 fully mature fish that ranged from 450 up to 650 millimeters long.
One bull trout redd was confirmed, and four other suspected bull trout redds were observed.
All of the fish were outfitted with passive integrated transponder and the subadults and adults were also equipped with radio tags. The tags allowed researchers to track the adult fish from boats and airplanes, and via receivers along the Clackamas and its tributaries.
While the transfer of the first bull trout was the work of many dedicated people too numerous to name, it would never have happened without the foresight, creativity, scientific rigor, and continued efforts through the implementation phase by this team of five, according a USFWS press release announcing the awards.
Starting in June 2011, the Clackamas bull trout team and other partners began transferring bull trout from a healthy population in the Metolius River to the Clackamas River within Mt. Hood National Forest. The project is expected to include additional fish transfers annually for at least seven and possibly up to 15 years. The goal is to reestablish a self-sustaining population of 300-500 spawning adult bull trout within 20 years.
The USFWS and ODFW are co-leads on the project. ODFW has taken the lead (largely with federal funding from the USFWS) in implementing and monitoring the project. The other primary partners on the project are the USFS, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, Portland General Electric, and National Marine Fisheries Service.
The reintroduction involves listing the new Clackamas bull trout residents under a special classification under the ESA. While it is illegal to deliberately “take” (kill or harm) any listed species, the less restrictive “non-essential experimental” classification, added to the ESA by Congress in 1982, is meant to provide flexibility in implementing recovery actions and improve public receptiveness to restoring ESA-listed species into areas they previously inhabited. The classification precludes anyone who accidentally kills or harms the listed species from being in violation of the law.
Of the 58 subadult and adult fish released in the stream, about two-thirds are believed to have survived their first several months in the new environment, Allen said. And several are believed to have spawned in tributaries such as Pinhead, Cub and Berry creeks, which has been identified prior to the transplanting as likely spawning grounds because of amenable stream temperatures and river bottom conditions.
“The fall dispersal of adults into potential spawning tributaries, particularly Pinhead Creek, and the documentation of spawning by one pair and observations of other potential redds greatly exceeded our expectations for this first year and provided strong initial evidence that translocated bull trout will adapt and reproduce in the Clackamas River,” according to the project’s initial annual report, prepared by lead author Patrick Barry and Shaun Clements of ODFW.
Bull trout have been extirpated from four sub-basins in the Willamette River Basin, including the Clackamas River since 1963. If the reintroduction effort continues successfully, it could be a model for other bull trout reintroductions to reestablish and reconnect now-isolated populations. A draft multi-state recovery plan for bull trout, now under development, will identify other potential reintroduction sites throughout the bull trout’s range.
Bull trout need extremely cold, clean water and specific habitat features, as well as connectivity from river, lake, and ocean habitats to headwater streams for annual spawning and feeding migrations. They were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.
Bull trout are primarily threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation, blockage of migratory corridors from hydroelectric and diversion dams, poor water quality, the effects of climate change, and past fisheries management practices, including targeted eradication through bounty fishing and the introduction of non-native species such as brown, lake, and brook trout.
Once plentiful throughout the coldwater rivers and lakes of the Northwest, bull trout populations in the United States are now scattered and patchy in portions of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Nevada. They occur in the Columbia and Snake river basins, extending east to headwater streams in Montana and Idaho and north into Canada, and south into the Klamath River Basin in south-central Oregon. Though still wide-ranging, many of the remaining populations are small and isolated from each other.
Nationwide, the Service honored a total of 56 teams and nine individuals as Recovery Champions for work to conserve species ranging from the polar bear in Alaska to the Appalachian elktoe mussel and spotfin chub in North Carolina.
“Recovery Champions are helping listed species get to the point at which they are secure in the wild and no longer need Endangered Species Act protection,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. “These groups and individuals have done amazing work in helping to bring dozens of species back from the brink of extinction, while improving habitat that benefits many other species and local communities.”
Among the other Recovery Champions is Greg Neudecker of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program based in Ovando, Mont.
In Montana, home to grizzly bears and bull trout, Greg Neudecker has engaged stakeholders and linked conservation goals with traditional western lifestyles, earning trust that has brought about shared success, according to the USFWS. Joining ranchers and organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and U. S. Forest Service, Greg Neudecker became involved in a landowner-led watershed group known as the Blackfoot Challenge.
In community-based initiatives, the group reduced grizzly bear-livestock conflicts with a watershed-wide effort to fence calving areas, remove food attractants, and reach out to landowners about living in bear country. Along with increasing bull trout numbers by restoring riparian areas and removing fish-passage barriers, the group secured perpetual conservation easements on 180,000 acres of private land in the Blackfoot Valley, a legacy for wildlife and people.
For more information about the 2011 Recovery Champions, go to http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/recovery-champions/index.html